In high school I became penpals with an Italian girl named Monica. We corresponded regularly, and it was a great thrill to actually be able to meet her the summer following my senior year, when I toured Europe with a band and choir.
A few years later, Monica and her friend Olga came to the US and stayed with my family for three weeks. We exposed them to all the excitements of our small midwest town: Baskin Robbins (they loved Pralines ‘n Cream), picnics, and a visit to the campus of Indiana University. My mom kept them busy hanging out laundry (they didn’t seem to mind!), and they enjoyed going to church with us.
During their visit, a few things struck me as unusual: they didn’t ask to have their clothes washed very frequently, and often remarked that we were “very clean” (I don’t think we were any cleaner than your typical American family!). They also really enjoyed our church – they seemed quite surprised at how friendly the people there were, and at the “spirit” of the services as evidenced through singing, preaching, etc. This was not something they were accustomed to at home.
A few more years passed, and I was very excited to be traveling to Italy to spend three weeks with Monica and her family. I was a little apprehensive too: after all, this wasn’t an Americanized tour, but a “real” Italian experience.
And what an experience it was! Monica’s family lived in the Tuscany region, in a small town called Prato just 15 miles from Florence. Every day she was within walking distance of the world-famous Uffizi art gallery, Michelangelo’s David, Florence’s famous Dome, and Dante’s former stomping grounds. One of my first thoughts was profound embarrassment over the pitiful offerings we had offered her back where I lived – somehow the Wal-Mart SuperStore paled in comparison to the great art of the renaissance!
My weeks in Italy were very interesting. One thing I noticed was that I saw virtually no overweight people. One reason for this is that most Italians appear to do a lot of walking. While here in the States we often drive from one side of the parking lot to the other, in Italy it’s nothing to walk 2-3 miles to a destination (I got a few blisters during my stay!) I also attribute their apparent fitness to their diet, which is, well … different. There was lots of pasta, sauces, hard bread, meats (prosciutto, sardines), fruit, and wine. I was a little horrified when Monica poured about 1/4 cup of olive oil over the top of almost every dish that was served. They ate very little in the way of sweets, which was really difficult for someone with a sweet tooth like me! One night, Monica’s father, who spoke almost no English, came in grinning with a big Hershey Bar and handed it to me. I was ecstatic!
Another thing which stood out was the totally different perspective the Italians have about the human body. There were TV ads and billboards all over the place with naked women on them, apparently not meant to be provocative. Also, we visited many art museums, and I found myself thinking, Wow – almost all the people in these paintings are naked!! Monica, meanwhile, would be looking at the same paintings while declaring, with her Italian accent, “Isn’t this beautiful? Look at the use of perspective!” Elementary-age children were on field trips in these museums, apparently appreciating all the fine art around them. I just can’t imagine even showing most of these paintings to children in America! (As a side-note: on a later trip to Paris, I was able to visit a children’s book publishing house. They showed us two versions of a book they were publishing on the human body: the US version showed the child in underwear; the European version showed the child naked).
As I had begun to notice when Olga and Monica visited the States, hygiene is somewhat different in Italy too. Most people do not wear deodorant, and many women don’t shave their legs or underarms. This became quite noticeable, because almost no buildings or cars were air-conditioned, and I visited at a very hot time of year. Monica’s mother did all our laundry by hand (I felt really bad giving her my dirty underwear, etc.!). Then the wash was hung out on a line outside the apartment balcony (there’s yet another difference: all but the very wealthy live in apartments).
A final difference was the types of socializing that young people do. Every night around 10, Monica and I would go out to a bar to visit with her friends. When I first heard about this, I was more than a bit apprehensive – I did not drink or party! However, I shouldn’t have feared. What passed for a bar was actually the outer walls of a castle where many people visited outside under the stars. Monica’s friends were a group of about 10 college-educated men and women in their early 20s. Although I don’t speak Italian, and therefore can’t vouch for much that was said, I could pick up general themes. They spoke of various authors, political situations, current events, etc. I was so impressed, because most of my friends back home spent their evenings discussing how to get a certain guy to ask them out or something like that. Also, each person ordered just one drink during the several hours we stayed. There is no minimum drinking age in Italy, but the people I observed seemed much more mature about the whole drinking issue than young people in America. There was no “Woo hoo, let’s party and get drunk!” mentality. It was so refreshing!
My weeks in Italy are several years behind me now, but I think of them often. Monica now works in London for Standard and Poor’s and is very successful in the world of finance. I have visited her there, although sadly, we’ve lost touch in recent years.
Yes, Italy is far from America in both miles and in cultural traditions. It was fascinating, though, to “live like an Italian” for a brief time!